What We Have Learned About Portland Trail Blazers so Far
They boast the NBA's best offense, a dynamic starting five and the top rebounding squad in the league. Add to that the recent addition of rookie C.J. McCollum and an improved bench, and you have the makings of a Cinderella story in the Rose City.
That being said, not everything is sunny in Rip City. After starting the season 22-4, the Blazers have since gone 12-9 and are starting to slip down the Western Conference standings. They still are a lock for the playoffs, but they will need to finish strong to secure a top spot out West.
Here is what we have learned so far about the Portland Trail Blazers.
Wesley Matthews Is One of the League's Top-10 Shooting Guards
Entering the season, Wesley Matthews was in limbo. The Portland Trail Blazers had just drafted C.J. McCollum in the lottery, and it was suggested that he would eventually take Matthews' job.
But before the season began, McCollum's injury woes continued and Matthews was granted a stay of execution, so to speak.
Matthews responded immediately by dropping at least 20 points in six of the team's first 14 games.
The key to Matthews' success has been his ability to knock down triples at an almost alarming rate. At one point in the season, he was hitting at least 50 percent from deep.
As of this article, he is knocking down a career-high 42 percent from deep and nearly 48 percent from the field. In comparison to last season's 39 and 43, respectively, this marks a huge improvement.
Matthews has always been a solid defender, but now he anchors the perimeter defense and typically draws the opponent's top offensive guard. By utilizing solid size and strength, he rarely gets overpowered.
Additionally, he has better-than-average athleticism and an excellent head on his shoulders.
So where exactly does he fit among the top shooting guards?
The next tier consists of Klay Thompson, DeMar DeRozan, Joe Johnson, Arron Afflalo and Eric Gordon.
Then we have the next tier, and here is likely where Matthews falls. O.J. Mayo, Bradley Beal, Monta Ellis and Lance Stephenson are also in the mix.
At this point in his career, only Afflalo exhibits the consistent mix of defense and offense that Matthews does. Additionally, of all the players on this list, only Matthews is considered his team's undisputed third option on offense, yet he still gets numbers that rival the bulk of the players on the third tier.
The Blazers lucked out when they were able to pluck Matthews away from the Utah Jazz a few years ago and were even more fortunate that Matthews has the type of drive that made him a better player after his eventual replacement was drafted.
LaMarcus Aldridge Is Starting to Look Like a Hall of Famer
I have often maintained that the biggest knock on LaMarcus Aldridge has been his willingness during the first few years of his career to defer to his teammates and his refusal to be "the man."
In this sense, he reminded me of Rasheed Wallace, the former Blazers power forward who was known for his super-sized talent and petulant behavior.
Wallace could have been one of the all-time great power forwards, but he didn't want that. He was happy enough to be the contrarian that lived on the fringes and tried just hard enough to be an All-Star.
Aldridge appeared to be heading in that same direction. But two years ago, he finally took a step forward and continued last season with his improvement.
That wasn't enough for Aldridge. He wanted to be the best. And in this, his seventh season in the league, Aldridge is arguably the best power forward on the planet and putting up numbers for the ages.
The top five power forwards in NBA history, generally considered, are Tim Duncan, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Elvin Hayes and probably one of the Kevins (McHale or Garnett).
Duncan, generally considered the top power forward of all-time, only once had a season in which he had a higher scoring average than Aldridge's 24.4 per game while averaging over 11 rebounds or more.
Barkley achieved the feat four times, Malone six, Hayes four, Garnett once, and McHale never did it.
To reach that stratosphere of statistical domination is truly remarkable, and if Aldridge can continue to play at this level he is going to punch his ticket to the Hall of Fame.
Offense Isn't a Problem, but Defense Is
The Portland Trail Blazers offense is formidable on many levels. The Blazers have an excellent inside/outside game, they have one of the few power forwards in the game that can score with his back to the basket, and they have one of the elite young point guards in the league.
Their perimeter offense is the best in the league, and they have the .384 three-point percentage to prove it. Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and LaMarcus Aldridge are all having career years, and Robin Lopez is playing inspired basketball.
But the problem that has plagued this team for the last few seasons is on the other side of the ball.
Last year's team had a terrible interior defense, led by J.J. Hickson and an overstretched Aldridge. The perimeter players eventually gave up when they realized that they were the only ones really trying. The team fell apart, and Portland eventually lost its last 13 games.
This year, the Blazers addressed the problem by replacing Hickson with Lopez who, though not elite defensively, plays with passion and power. The bench was improved with players who could eventually become solid defenders such as Thomas Robinson and Dorel Wright, and the hope was that this team would eventually figure it out.
However, things haven't progressed the way the Blazers had hoped for. They currently have the league's fourth-worst defense in terms of points allowed per contest. They are allowing 45.8 shooting against them and close to 37 percent shooting from deep.
So what exactly can the Blazers do to fix this problem?
It may sound flip, but the only chance they have is to run the opponents out of their gym. It is a terrible cliche, but they need to outscore their opponents. Luckily, they have the highest scoring offense so they generally have been able to do that. But they likely aren't going to be able to pull much more defensive talent out of their players.
Sadly, teams built like the Blazers rarely advance to the NBA Finals. So therefore, they likely are at least one piece away from taking the next step.
Damian Lillard Is Still a Step Away from Where He Could Be
Damian Lillard was last year's biggest surprise in the NBA as far as rookies are concerned. He took the league by storm, hitting threes, running the point with authority and winning the league's Rookie of the Year award.
The hope was that in his second year, Lillard would not only improve his scoring but also his passing and defense as well.
Lillard definitely has improved his scoring. He has raised his scoring average from 19 to 20.6 points per game while knocking down 41.1 percent from deep. He dropped his turnovers from 3.0 to 2.3 per game and his free-throw percentage is up to 88.6 percent.
Defensively, though his numbers might not bear it out, his intensity has definitely improved. The term "willing defender" is perfectly suited to Lillard. He moves his feet well, has the quickness to stay in front of most point guards and has the upper body strength to hold his own against some shooting guards.
In a lot of ways, Lillard has the potential to be as good a defender as Chauncey Billups. That isn't to say elite, but smart and versatile. He will learn the opponents' tendencies and will begin to rely on instincts.
But where Lillard really needs to improve is in distributing the ball.
As a rookie, he showed flashes of elite distribution skills. He averaged 6.5 assists per game and began to develop as a pick-and-roll point guard.
But 6.5 assists per game really isn't the ideal number you're looking for with your point guard. Lillard has the potential to average eight to 10 assists per game, especially with an elite power forward to pass to.
Instead, Lillard has seen his assist numbers go down, averaging 5.6 so far this year. He is nearly being passed by his teammate Nicolas Batum in this category.
Given that this team is averaging 108 points per game, it is inexcusable that Lillard's assist numbers have gone down so far.
In order for Lillard to take that next step toward elite point guard status, he is going to need that number to start approaching eight assists or more.
The Blazers Are at Least One Player Away from Contention
The Trail Blazers, make no mistake about it, are one of the league's best teams. They boast perhaps the best power forward in the game, one of the top 10 shooting guards and one of the league's top young point guards.
They have arguably the best starting five in the game and a much improved bench.
But they aren't good enough defensively to have prolonged success in the playoffs. They also could stand to improve somewhat at the center position.
For this reason, the Blazers have been rumored to be interested in the Houston Rockets' Omer Asik. Another possibility could be the Detroit Pistons' Greg Monroe, although Monroe wouldn't provide much help on defense.
Another option could be trading for an elite scorer off the bench. Again, the Pistons could provide Rodney Stuckey as a slasher to open up more perimeter scoring. He also could provide solid defensive help.
Luckily, the Blazers have their entire starting five locked up contractually for the most part, and they have C.J. McCollum and Meyers Leonard as potential bargaining chips. However, the Blazers can't dangle their first-round pick as trade bait since it is already tied up in a potential deal with the Charlotte Bobcats.
One thing is certain, the Blazers will need more defense and potentially improved play at the center position to reach the next level.